Police TerrorUSA, Inc. Is More Than Police Murders

St. Louis police confront protesters in the wake of Jason Stockley’s acquittal, September 15 

Colin Gordon ▪ September 21, 2017
dissentmagazine.org

The protests that have roiled St. Louis since the acquittal
last week of former St. Louis police officer Jason Stockley in the 2011
murder of Anthony Lamar Smith are—in one respect—animated by the
palpable injustice of the case. The trial judge gave little weight to
Stockley’s declaration, during his pursuit of Smith, that he was “going to kill this motherfucker.” He accepted without hesitation or reservation Stockley’s claim to be acting in self-defense. He whistled past strong circumstantial evidence that
Stockley planted a weapon in Smith’s car after the shooting. He made
little of chilling detail that Stockley, in addition to his service
weapon, was brandishing a personal AK-47 in defiance of departmental
regulations. And he punctuated his ruling with the gratuitous aside, on the question of whether Smith was armed, “that an urban heroin dealer not in possession of a firearm would be an anomaly.”

More
broadly, the protests mark a persistent outrage at police conduct (and
misconduct) in which the deaths of Smith in 2011, and of Michael Brown
in 2014, are but the most visible episodes. And they mark a persistent
burden of unequal citizenship in Greater St. Louis, in which African
Americans are more likely to be the targets of local government than its
beneficiaries. Policing, in this sense, is not just a public service
aimed at securing safety and order. It is, as Joe Soss and Vesla Weaver underscore,
a highly discretionary exercise of “coercion, containment, repression,
surveillance, regulation, predation, discipline, and violence” that
represents for many—and certainly for the most marginal—the single most
important point of contact between citizen and state.

“The meting out of punishment in the American criminal justice system,” add Tracey Meares and Ben Justice,
“. . . . provide Americans with a powerful and coherent set of messages
and experiences that define who is a citizen, and who is a problem.”

These
patterns have a long history, and are hardly unique to St. Louis. But
they are magnified in this politically fragmented and deeply segregated
metropolitan area. As of 2017, St. Louis County alone counts 89
municipalities, 81 municipal courts, and 61 police departments. Local
testimony—from the 1970 hearings of the United States Commission on Civil Rights through the work of Arch City Defenders
and others in the wake of Michael Brown’s death—document exposure to
serial traffic stops and low level harassment from one municipal
fragment to the next, and a tangle of local warrant and fines that often
trapped those charged with even minor offenses on a “municipal shuffle”
from one court docket to the next. And this “byzantine maze of
overlapping jurisdictions,” as reporters Ryan J. Reilly and Rebecca Rivas put it,
has made it harder to accomplish any meaningful change in policing or
the courts; “whatever you do in St. Louis City,” one reformer observes,
“you have to replicate 90 times throughout the county.”

Traffic
stops are one potent illustration of the disproportionate contact
between black citizens of Greater St. Louis and their local police.
Since 2000, the State of Missouri has required local police departments
to report traffic stops
(and their outcome) by race. The figure below plots this disparity
index for the nine-county St. Louis region, for blacks and whites, from
2000 to 2016. At a disparity index of “1,” the share of traffic stops
matches that racial group’s share of the population. Each dot on the
graph is a police jurisdiction; the bars show the range from the 25th to the 75th
percentile, with the midpoint line designating the median value for
that year across all jurisdictions. The “whiskers” extend to a point 1.5
times the interquartile range (the difference between the 25th and 75th percentiles); all values greater than that are excluded as outliers.

Traffic Stops by Race, St. Louis Region, 2000-2016
Traffic Stops by Race, St. Louis Region, 2000-2016 [graphic]
Source: Missouri Attorney General, Vehicle Stops Report, 2000-2016.

For whites, the 100-odd police
jurisdictions in the St. Louis region are clustered at or below 1 in
every year surveyed. For blacks, the median disparity index is closer to
2, and the 75th percentile is over 3 for all but four of the
years surveyed. A quarter of these police jurisdictions, in other
words, stopped black motorists at a rate more than three times their
share of the population.

These disparities were even starker when a
traffic stop led to a search or an arrest. In 2013 (the year before
Michael Brown was shot), the police departments of Ferguson, Olivette, Overland, and Kirkwood
searched the vehicles of black motorists at twice the rate of those of
whites, and arrested black motorists at almost three times the rate. In
Bel-Ridge (just south of Ferguson) that year, more than three-quarters
of all traffic stops involved black motorists; of the 775 black
motorists stopped, eleven were subject to searches and thirty-two were
arrested. Traffic stops of motorists who were not black did not yield a single search or arrest.

This data further corroborates the conclusions of the Obama Justice Department’s investigation of the Ferguson Police Department,
published in 2015. In its report, the Department noted “the persistent
exercise of discretion to the detriment of African Americans; the
apparent consideration of race in assessing threat; and the historical
opposition to having African Americans live in Ferguson, which lingers
among some today” in describing local practices more interested in
enforcing segregation than in ensuring public safety. The police “see
some residents, especially those who live in Ferguson’s predominantly
African-American neighborhoods, less as constituents to be protected
than as potential offenders,” the report concluded caustically.

Such
sharply uneven experiences diminish and devalue civic life in other
ways. A criminal record can short-circuit other avenues of meaningful
citizenship—including education and employment opportunities, access to housing, and the right to vote.
Both the rate and the manner of interactions with the police, of which
traffic stops offer but one jarring example, undermine the faith of
African-American citizens in the ability of their government to make
fair and objective decisions.

Such policing practices “arrest citizenship”
not just because they are unevenly targeted, but because the conduct of
the police, and the charges themselves, violate basic norms of social
and legal equity. “African Americans’ views of [Ferguson Police
Department],” as the Department of Justice observed, “are shaped not
just by what FPD officers do, but by how they do it.”
The problem
here is twofold: first, local policing in Greater St. Louis has always
leaned heavily on enforcement of the municipal code—a constitutional fog
of petty offenses and citations.

Michael Brown was stopped under the
auspices of Ferguson Municipal Code Sec. 44-344 “Manner of walking along roadway,” an exhortation to use the sidewalk that was, before its repeal in 2016, employed almost exclusively
as a pretext for stopping black pedestrians. More broadly, much of the
harassment that passes for policing rest on “contempt of cop” charges
such as Failure to Comply, Disorderly Conduct, Interference with
Officer, or Resisting Arrest—all of which are wielded overwhelmingly
against black pedestrians and motorists. The result, as the Department
of Justice tallied, are systematic violations of the First Amendment,
and of the “probable cause” and “excessive force” provisions of the
Fourth Amendment.

Second, this pattern of unequal protection under
the law is accompanied by only the thinnest veneer of procedural
justice. Police interactions with African Americans in St. Louis and St.
Louis County have historically been marked by indifference and neglect
of those seeking the protection of the courts (including early arrivals
in areas of racial transition), and disrespect, disdain, and excessive
force for those who are the targets of the law. In their scathing 2015 assessment
of the County’s municipal courts, Arch City Defenders underscored this
point: “For most individuals, the only substantive interaction they have
with the Missouri justice system or with their municipal government is
through the municipal courts, and the impressions instilled by those
courts reflect on the entire municipality.”

In short, police
across the region have snuffed out any semblance of equal protection and
equal citizenship for half the population of the City of St. Louis and
nearly a quarter of the population of St. Louis County. This regime of
policing, at once systemic and chaotic, is just one iteration of the
refusal of equal citizenship playing out hour by hour across the
country—in stark racial inequalities on every metric from school suspensions to executions, in pervasive entanglement with the police and courts in particular for young black men, and an in era of mass incarceration
without historical precedent or current analog. These are the
conditions that shield state actors no matter how egregious their
conduct, and that extend to others the state’s constant attention but
not its protection. These are the conditions that made it possible for
Jason Stockley to murder Anthony Lamar Smith and walk away free.


Colin Gordon is a professor of history at the University of Iowa. He is the author of Mapping Decline: St. Louis and the Fate of the American City (2008) and a companion website.

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